One of the fascinating facts that I found quite interesting in "Tattooing the World" is that Immanuel Kant had written on tattoos. As a student of philosophy I have long been an admirer (and quasi-sympathizer) of Kant, and so I thought a bit of investigation into what Kant says about tattoos might be merited. What I discovered in his writings stands in sharp contrast to much of what we have discussed of tattoos already in class, and also with what is written in "Tattooing the World".
Let it be said that I did not spend too much time with the appropriate section of the Critique of Pure Judgment that concerns tattoos. But while what Kant says typically demands repeated readings to gain understanding, I think that what Kant says about tattoos is rather perspicuous. Kant states that there are two types of beauty: free and dependent. Free beauty admits of no presuppositions, while dependent beauty does admit of presuppositions. That is a complicated way of saying that when we come across an object of free beauty, we do not possess any preconceived notions of structure or purpose to which we compare this object. But with objects of dependent beauty, we do possess certain preconceived notions of structure or purpose. Examples will help the understanding of this distinction. Kant speaks of flowers and buildings. When we see a flower, we immediately take note of its beauty, but we do not compare its beauty to the standard that is the "purpose" of a flower. Kant says that we don't consider how well a flower might pollenate when we consider its beauty; flowers are simply--freely--beautiful. But when we see a building that we might label as beautiful, that process of labeling is dependent on how well the building conforms to our standard of how a "good" building ought to function. Were we to stand in rapture before the Parthenon, but then notice that its roof leaked, or that its foundation was unstable, these judgments would detract from the beauty of the Parthenon.
Kant says that because of this distinction between free beauty and dependent beauty, free and dependent beauty must never mix. He goes on to identify tattoos (Maori tattoos are his frame of reference) as examples of free beauty, and the human body as an example of dependent beauty. The logical extension of these identifications is that tattoos do not possess a preconceived notion of purpose, while the human body does.
I do not agree with Kant, and I do not think that what we have discussed in class thus far, and certainly not what we have read of "Tattooing the World" so far, reconciles with Kant's theory either. It should also be said here that Kant himself offers no compelling reason for why free and dependent beauty ought not to mix. Maybe we could build our way towards a refutation of what Kant says about tattoos by first discussing a broader example of free and dependent beauty: art and churches. Kant would--I believe--argue that art and churches ought not to mix. Works of art are examples of free beauty, and churches (as buildings) are examples of dependent beauty.
I think the salient fact that Kant misses is that free beauty is itself the (perhaps "a") standard to which instantiations of dependent beauty are compared. The purpose of art in churches is to remind the parishioner of the beauty and love of God, and to direct thoughts upwards, towards higher and more noble ideals. Art is meant to inspire and to remind, in this context. As such, art itself functions as a standard to which the building of a church itself is compared. A church that through its very structure does not conform to a standard of beauty, well, is ugly. But this ugliness exists not only in a physical sense, but also we might say in some metaphysical way as well: the building fails to "live up" to the beauty which directs the church itself towards its true purpose.
I believe that free and dependent beauty are inextricably linked. This is not to say that an example of dependent beauty must always feature the adornments of free beauty, but that there is certainly no problem when the latter adorns the former.
We are now in a fine position to compare these matters to our discussion of tattoos. Consider what we have read in "Tattooing the World" about tattoos functioning as analogues of language, and tattoos rooting a person through art into a family and a larger community. As an analogue of language, tattoos are a means of expression, though they seem to often lack the universal clarity of definition and meaning that is part and parcel of words.
But I think this is more a problem of context than of definition, and perhaps Ellis would agree. One of the troubles for O'Connell was that the definition and meaning of his tattoos seemed to escape him. As a natural outlier to South-Pacific culture, he adopted the art of a culture on his body but never inherited the meaning of his tattoos. But I don't think this is equivocal to stating that the tattoos qua tattoos lacked universal meaning. What the tattoos on O'Connell's body lacked was a proper context for appreciation. Consider a painting--let's say Caravaggio's "Conversion of St. Paul"--and contemplate how the meaning of that painting changes if it hangs on a wall in the National Gallery rather than in the Cesari chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Absent the context of a Christian church in a very Christian city, the painting means something very different. Such is the case with O'Connell's tattoos: as an outsider, he lacked privileged access to the meaning of his tattoos that could ever only be understood from within the culture.
For South-Pacific islanders, it is evident from "Tattooing the World" that tattoos possess very certain and clear meanings and definitions. They express ethical, cultural, familial, and community obligations. Tattoos also serve as a constituent part of the self-concept or personal identity. As works of free art--in the Kantian sense--these tattoos function as standards by which the conduct of the person tattooed is to be compared. Though the tattoos as art alone are beautiful, there is necessarily beauty in the meaning of the tattoos as well. A person so adorned walks and lives with a regular reminder of the standard to which he or she ought to conduct their lives, and in this guise tattoos are beautiful creations indeed.
I will close by stating that what Kant lacks in his theory might be complemented by a more classical conception of beauty found in Aristotle and other Greek thinkers. The classical conception of beauty focuses on symmetry, proportion, and form. So where Kant says the key is that free and dependent beauty never mix, a classical philosopher such as Aristotle might respond by stating that the key is that beautiful objects must actually be beautiful. There is such a thing as bad art, and so a beautiful tattoo is composed of two parts: a justifiably beautiful meaning represented in a justifiably beautiful tattoo, both free of whimsy, caprice, and frivolity.